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How low-cost technology going to be able to India monitor the air it inhales

A live pollution meter installed by the Delhi government to monitor the pollution on first day of the odd-even traffic restrictions in the city on January 1, 2016.
Image: Ramesh Pathania/ Mint/ Getty Images

India has some of the most unhealthy air in the world, but the wake up bellow came in 2014, when its capital New Delhi was ranked by the World Health Organisation as the most polluted city in the world.

Over the next two years, reports on its air quality remained grim. The country’s air pollution levels reached their highest levels in 2015, after being on rise for the past decades. For the first time, India’s air was also found to be more polluted than China’s. This year, WHO revealed that the country was home to half of the world’s most polluted cities. Other analyses indicated clear health risks, with 1. 6 million premature deaths in India linked to air pollution.

In a first step towards being more transparent about its pollution crisis, India launched its first air quality indicator to monitor pollution in 10 cities in 2015. Despite this, awareness and knowledge of air pollution remained low and inadequate.

To remedy this, a number of Indian startups are building low-cost pollution sensors and IoT devices to measure air pollution on a hyper-local level and at a wider scale in order to gain a wider knowledge of the problem and how it can be tackled. They argue that more comprehensive pollution data can help increase public awareness about the extent of the problem and help the government find solutions.

“The government devices solve a different purpose, at best help in regulatory decisions.” tells Mrutyunjay Mishra, who runs an analytics company Juxt-SmartMandate. “The data is notpubliclyvisible, and even if they are for some locations like Delhi, itdoesn’t drive ‘community action’. The data is far from being open and is not inviting the complex network to come and work with the data to drive action.The require is to get a lot of people come and use their collective intelligence to develop a solution.”

Government operated pollution monitors are often expensive and therefore few in number.

Moreover, government-operated pollution monitors are often expensive and therefore few in number. “The number of government pollution monitors, besides New Delhi, is in single digits, ” Ronak Sutaria of IndiaSpend explains. “That is, in most polluted cities, the govt. has installed a single pollution monitor for a million people. That seems woefully inadequate.”

There is also the question of how effective the operations of the government’s monitors are. Sutaria cites the example of a recent survey that revealed that while Delhi has 21 air pollution monitors, there were significant long gaps in their monitoring when they may have stopped working.

IndiaSpend’s Breathe initiative is one of the organisations operating a network of independent air quality monitoring devices across India. In a step towards attaining live air pollution air data more democratic, IndiaSpend partnered with Twitter India to let users get real-time data on air pollution in their neighborhood with merely a tweet.

“It helps stimulate the air quality data more actionable for people as they just have to send their place and within seconds they are provided information about the air quality levels in their area, ” Sutaria says.

IndiaSpend’s network utilizes low quality sensors fitted with GPRS transmitter, which have deployed in around 40 devices in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Patna and Lucknow. It is also working on deploying devices in cities such as Dehradun, Ahmedabad, Varanasi, Allahabad, Kanpur and Bhopal.

An air monitoring device from IndiaSpend.

The devices are built in India, utilizing a digital Particulate Matter( PM) sensor from China and then doing the controller committee and data transmission integration locally. The PM sensor is a laser sensor which is connected to a controller committee which receives data from the sensor. A GPRS module transmits the data to IndiaSpend’s servers utilizing a 2G connection.

“The goal of the low-cost devices and analysis provided by IndiaSpend is to involve citizens in seeing the effects of policies as well as their own actions on the air quality levels in the area surrounding their own houses, ” Sutaria tells. “When devices are owned or installed by people themselves, they tend to be more involved in the understanding of the problem and in demanding that action be taken on conditions which are harmful to them.”

Delhi-based analytics company Juxt-SmartMandate( JSM) takes this a step further with its non-profit platform, India Open Data Association( IODA ). Its open environment data project was started with the aim of creating a “simple, scalable and easy to deploy solution” to bring in “real time status of the environment from thousands of locations in India”. The data is also open source, with the device design and data APIs being accessible to everyone.

“If the data remains open, it will attract all stakeholders , not only general public, but also the ones who influence public policy, ” IODA founding member Mrutyunjay Mishra says.

Piloted during the course of its massive Hindu festival Nashik Kumbh Mela, JSM now has 30 environmental monitoring kits installed in Delhi. These have multiple sensors, and was linked to either analog, digital or UART ports of a base shield, which is in turn connected to a IoT board with data being transferred through SIM cards. In June, IODA in association with Oizom also launched AirOwls, which measure dust particulate matter. Mishra says that while the readings sometimes differ from government monitors, the devices are calibrated to determine the differences.

IndiaSpend and JSM aren’t alone. The Chennai-based Sensors Without Borders offer hyperlocal and open source environmental data on air and water quality have come from low-cost devices to help with governmental policy making and supporting community organisations.

An air quality monitor built by Oizom, one of the manufacturers working with India Open Data Association.

In April, data intelligence company SocialCops conducted an experiment with five low-cost GPS-enabled IoT devices that were installed on five automobile rickshaws for a month. The idea was to measure PM 10 levels every 30 seconds as the auto travelled all over Delhi.

“There is little data to understand pollution at a deeper level how it varies within a city, which parts of the city have higher pollution levels, what could be the reasons for that. The government pollution monitoring stations are few and stationary and may not dedicate us insights at a granular level, ” Surendran Balachandran of SocialCops tells. “Autos, on the other hand, can travel to various corners of the city through out the working day, which gives us the ability to collect data from multiple locations and at much lower costs.

In the long-term, these startups hope that greater knowledge about the air quality levels in their neighborhood will lead to community participation in dealing with air pollution at a local and city-wide level.

“Our goal is only to involve as many community organizations as possible and to build the tools& data which will allow them to demand for what they feel is appropriate& suitable for their own neighbourhood.” Sutaria tells. “Improving air quality is not a one size fits all solution. It will require many small actions which will eventually lead to a larger change”

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